Traveller and friend of Wild Frontiers, Edd Keith managed to travel to Egypt this year before the UK travel ban was imposed. Lockdown was lifted in Egypt a year ago, so Edd shares with us what exploring this country is like with exponentially fewer tourists and how they've coping having emerged from the worst of the pandemic.
Although it may be harder to travel the world at the moment, now is an incredible time to be a tourist. I am one of the lucky few who left the UK before the travel ban was imposed, and after adventures in Greece, Bulgaria and the Canary Islands, my permitted time in the Schengen area was up, and I was forced to get a little more creative. So, after a PCR test and a swift connection in Milan, my Belgian travel companion and I arrived in a bright and bustling Egypt.
The country ended its lockdown last summer, and since then Egyptians have enjoyed a relatively normal life. Almost all shops and venues are open, with no curfew or social distancing rules, and a very relaxed mask policy.
Coming from the Canary Islands – where the government have been very strict with their restrictions – walking down the streets felt like a dream. Markets packed with excited families buying decorations for Ramadan; birthday party boats blaring Arabic pop hits as they cruise down the Nile; coffee shops packed with men cheering and dancing after Mo Salah scores another goal for Liverpool. Life how life should be.
Egypt’s southernmost city, Aswan is situated on the Nile, surrounded by vast golden desert and containing lush green islands between the two contrasting sides of the city. Whilst the main bulk of the city is east of the Nile, the western part is marked by the presence of the Nubian people, who have an entirely different culture, language and appearance from Arab Egyptians. In Aswan, we enjoyed refreshing swims in the Nile, and incredible historical sites, such as the 7th Century desert monastery of St. Simeon, and the Ancient Egyptian temple of Philae.
The city was also our base to visit the ancient Temples of Abu Simbel – which actually used to be located in Aswan. The two temples, built around 1250 BC, were in fact moved from Aswan some 230 kilometres southwards to the town of Abu Simbel, due to the risk of being flooded after the construction of the Aswan High Dam in the 1960s. The temples themselves, built for Ramses II and his wife Nefertari, are carved into the rock, and boast spectacular exteriors, with enormous statues of various Egyptian Gods and Ramses II himself. The interior is no less impressive, with a colossal main chamber with additional giant statues, and many smaller chambers covered with beautiful hieroglyphics.
Once back in Aswan, we began a new day of adventure. Our first stop was the Temple of Kom Ombo – an ancient temple characterised by its many giant columns. It contains many different rooms for different religious purposes and is uncommon for ancient Egyptian architecture in the sense that it is perfectly symmetrical. And the most magical part? We had the whole complex to ourselves; not one other tourist in sight. Afterwards, we visited the village of Faris, where we were greeted by grinning children excitedly welcoming us in Arabic. We met local craftsman Mohamed, who showed us around his farm and demonstrated his impeccable machete skills, hand-making various creations from his own palm trees.
We continued our journey to the village of Besaw, located on an island in the middle of the Nile. Scores of birds' glide above the bright green grasses as our boat approaches the island, where we were greeted by farmer and fisherman Sayed for lunch. His family had prepared a mighty feast for us: vegetable tagine, flatbreads, fried chicken, Egyptian rice, salad, and two different local soups. After finishing off with fruit and baklava, Sayed took us around the characterful island. He explained different elements of life in rural Egypt, such as the construction of buildings from mud bricks, and how they bake bread under the sun.
After saying goodbye to Sayed, we journeyed through the now mountainous landscape of central Egypt, passing by children riding on donkeys along the glistening Nile, until we reached our next destination, Edfu Temple. Considered one of the best-preserved temples in Egypt, the ancient complex is a shrine to the sky God, Horus. Its giant, cascading walls are covered in intricate designs, whilst the interior is an enormous mixture of grand high-ceilinged chambers and tight corridors and stairways. Walking through this temple, with light beams filtering through openings in the walls, and – once again – zero other visitors to distract us, we were truly transported back to ancient Egypt.
From Edfu, we arrived at our final destination of Luxor, where we have since been enjoying marvels such as the enormous Karnak temple complex, and Ancient Egypt’s largest royal burial ground, Valley of the Kings.
Although tourism has slightly picked up in Egypt in 2021, it’s still a fraction of what it used to be, Basem tells me. Those working in the industry have found very little work, leading to many losing their jobs and hotels being forced to close down – despite the government ensuring that all historical sites remain open and are made Covid friendly.
On a positive side, however, this quiet period has given the monuments time to breathe – and Egypt has taken this opportunity to renovate, clean up, and re-route different sites. The government is making great efforts to vaccinate the population as quickly as possible, and Basem is hopeful that summer 2021 trips will run as normal and tourism will be restored by September. With the recent discovery of a 3000-year-old lost city, and the spectacular Pharoh's Golden Parade in Cairo this April, it almost seems as if there has never been a better time to visit Egypt.
If there’s one thing that this trip has taught me, it’s that there is always a place and a way to travel. Activities can still be enjoyed safely and efficiently, and this period of time is an incredible opportunity to see the world’s wonders in their most authentic form. Travel, most certainly, is not dead.